- By Jeff Field -
What a week: In the space of a few days we saw big distribution releases of both Mandrake 8.0 and Red Hat 7.1. Red Hat used to be the easiest distribution to install, then Red Hat-based Mandrake came along and dethroned it. Now several versions later, which one of these point-and-click, package-based distributions comes out on top?
|Mandrake 8.0||Red Hat 7.1|
Mandrake and Red Hat are very similar, at most one revision off from each other. Already in this fast-paced world both are outdated, as the 2.4.4 Linux kernel has just been released. However, Mandrake is the winner in up-to-date major software releases.
Both distributions feature graphical, package-based installations. Both installations went smoothly for me using the "default settings." For Red Hat, you could choose several types of installations, such as workstation and server, or a custom setting where you can choose your own packages. Mandrake, on the other hand, has a list of "tasks." Each task includes a set of packages. So you can select the game task for your PC and the Web/FTP server task and both sets of programs will be installed. Red Hat has a similar way to install by tasks, but your only options are KDE, Gnome and games.
At one point in either installation, you choose whether you want Gnome or KDE, or both. Then, interestingly, Mandrake gives you an option for no root password, which I think is a terrible idea -- sure, not having a root password can be convenient, but it is just about the worst option you can have if you want your Linux box to be secure.
An interesting note about these installations is that both downplay the role of the console, something which until recently was the primary focus of most Linux users, and still is for many. If you open up a console in Mandrake, telnet is not even installed, which to me seems borderline crazy. I can understand having to manually select something like pine, but telnet is a basic function of a Linux machine. Even Windows comes with a telnet client by default.
As for the configuration of the network, both distributions successfully detected my ethernet card and configured the machine with DHCP. Red Hat did not ask me for any settings; it picked up a hostname on its own. Mandrake asked me to input the full hostname for the machine, although it will set up the network successfully if you leave that space blank. Under the default installations, neither asked me which version of X I wanted. Mandrake asked me if I wanted a default user for the machine, which it would log in automatically, as well as which environment I wanted as the default, KDE, Gnome, or Sawfish.
Mandrake 8.0 comes with Nautilus, the new Gnome file manager and desktop. In desktop functionality, I find GMC and Nautilus to be virtually the same. Nautilus adds a trash can to the desktop, and that is just about it on the surface, and it has roughly double the memory usage of GMC -- in my case, 10 megs versus 5.2 MB. Eazel has some promising features, such as online file storage and its software catalog, should you choose to register your copy. However, you can have these features without having Nautilus as your desktop.
In the file management arena, Nautilus shines. While it seems slower than GMC in some cases, it has a very nice set of features, including viewing images as thumbnails, and a "fast search" that indexes your hard drive and then quickly searches it for files (which sounds suspiciouly like "locate" in the console). Overall Nautilus shows promise as a file manager, but doesn't have a big advantage as a desktop even though it may eventually replace GMC. Also, and this is just a minor annoyance, if you run Nautilus as your desktop and login as root, it will warn you, every time, that you are running Nautilus as root. Very annoying.
Once you have Mandrake or Red Hat installed and you are logged in, you are faced with similar desktops. Mandrake has a "smoother" appearance, which while not functionally different from Red Hat's, seems more visually appealing. Other than that, the interfaces are basically the same. Mandrake was (by default) set to 1280 by 1024 on my 21" monitor, while Red Hat asked me, with a default of 1024 by 768. The difference is the applets used to configure the distributions.
Red Hat provides you with a few non-integrated graphical applications to configure your network, drives, firewall and printers. Some of these programs have changed little in the past few major revisions of Red Hat, and they could definitely use some improvements. Mandrake, when it took Red Hat's distribution and expanded upon it, chose to abandon these utilities in favor of its own, and this was probably one of the best decisions Mandrake has made. Mandrake's utilities all reside in the integrated Mandrake Control Center. In this one place, you can find configuration options for hardware, networking, firewall, security levels, boot settings, fonts, time and more. The network configuration is vastly superior to the one included with Red Hat. Red Hat provides you with good network configuration during the installation, but once you have it installed and need to reconfigure the network, that ease disappears because you must manually configure through the netcfg program. Mandrake, on the other hand, gives you a wizard that will automatically configure most network connections, and if it cannot automatically configure it, it will help you through the process.
Graphical hardware management in Red Hat is not present. Instead, it relies solely on its boot time hardware detection. Mandrake provides you with an excellent hardware applet, Harddrake, which will show you all of the hardware installed in your system as well as let you run configuration programs for that hardware, including USB devices. Mandrake is the clear winner here, doing its best to make configuring your Linux PC easy.
Both Red Hat and Mandrake have kernels later than 2.4.1, which was the first kernel to support the ReiserFS file system. Mandrake has supported ReiserFS since version 7.1 (I believe), but it was via a customized kernel. Mandrake still has the support, now through the built-in kernel support, but Red Hat has not yet decided to support ReiserFS. This is a big mistake in my mind, as Reiser is gaining in popularity. It has some clear advantages over ext2, namely that if for some reason your PC crashes, you do not have to wait for the file system check, but simply for ReiserFS to playback its log, which at most has taken me 13 seconds.
Installation speed: For some reason, performing a custom installation of Mandrake from CD seems unusually slow. Both distributions seem to take a long time to do a large custom installation, but there are times during the Mandrake installation where it seems to be doing nothing, even when I switch into the console and monitor what it is doing.
Both operating systems are based on RPM package management. RPM, or Red Hat Package Manager, was developed by Red Hat as a means to automate the installation of programs under Linux. RPM was met with a mixed reception -- those who used Linux because they thought it was better than Windows or because they did not like paying Microsoft's absorbitant fees applauded it as a way to make installing programs as easy as or easier than installing a program under Windows. Linux purists hated it, thinking it took something away from Linux -- namely interoperability between distributions. But for the average PC user who made the move to Linux, RPM was a blessing. Now, years later, the idea of package management is prominent in many distributions -- Debian is a particular favorite of more advanced Linux users, with its apt-get, and both Mandrake and Red Hat not only use packages, but can now go online and automatically update the packages on your PC.
Red Hat's package manager, GnoRPM, shows you installed packages, but in order to install new packages, or packages from the installation, you need to use the find feature. Mandrake also uses a find feature, but it also offers you the ability to go through the original categories from the installation to find and install packages you did not install during the original installation. Both ways make finding and installing packages easier, although Mandrake's implementation is slightly smoother, as it makes it easier to locate the package you want. One particular complaint I have in these programs is directed toward Mandrake's software manager program, which reindexes the installation CDs each time you load the program. I can understand scanning remote sources, but reindexing the CDs each time is a waste of time even though it does not require the CDs to do this.
Both distributions come with software for math, programming, word processing, spreadsheet, editing, multimedia, and any number of other things. come with a build of Mozilla installed, nice for those who want something a little more advanced than Netscape 4.7. Mandrake came with 0.8 (the 20010409 build), while Red Hat came with an older version, 0.7 (the 20010316 build). I cannot complain about the variety of applications in either distribution, because I am convinced no one person could ever use all the programs they come with. You certainly get a system with 10 times the functionality of a system with the default installation of Microsoft Windows. And, thanks to the beauty of free software, you can probably go and find an Open Source version of whatever you want if there is not one included.
Who comes out on top?
Both distributions have their merits. Red Hat has focused more on the business uses of Linux, trying to get Linux accepted in the workplace. Mandrake has focused on the end user experience, making a distribution targeted toward new users who are wondering what Linux is or who are excited by the idea of escaping from Microsoft's software-clutches. In the end, I have to say that I prefer Mandrake -- it seems more tightly integrated than Red Hat, and is more up to date, as well as supporting ReiserFS, a feature I adore. I will be recommending Mandrake over Red Hat to people who come to me interested in Linux. This is a lesson in Open Source -- Mandrake took Red Hat, and improved upon it, and now it pulls ahead. Perhaps the lesson will be turned around -- Red Hat could learn a thing or two from Mandrake, maybe even integrating some of Mandrake's changes into its own distribution.